Don Valley Brick Works

Sunday, Nov. 16, 2014

It was minus two with light snow flurries but one of those pleasant days when fall is trying to be winter. There is plenty of pay parking on the site of the brick works (Google Maps link).

In 1882 William Taylor was digging holes for fence posts on his farm when he uncovered some good looking clay.  Checking with a local brick maker, he was told that the clay was ideal for bricks.  William and his two brothers operated the paper mills at Todmorden.  By 1889 they had opened up the Don Valley Pressed Brick Company.  By the early 1890’s they were winning international awards for the quality of their bricks.

There were earlier wooden buildings but the oldest of the 15 remaining ones, and the first one made of Don Valley bricks, is the 1891 dry press brick plant.  This building held most of the early production and was built in the first two years of operation.

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This is the view from the top of the quarry looking down on the last remaining kiln chimney, built in 1906.  This chimney, as well as three others, provided a continuous draft over a series of kilns. As can be seen in the cover photo each chimney contained one word that together spelled out Don Valley Brick Works.  Only the “Valley” chimney remains.

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On April 19, 1904 a great fire destroyed much of the downtown of Toronto.  When it was over, there were 104 buildings which had burnt down.  The city enacted new laws to reduce the risk of another serious fire and these included a move toward more brick construction.  Over the next few years much of the Toronto skyline would be built using Don Valley bricks.  Some of the major buildings constructed of their bricks include Sick Kids Hospital, Toronto General, Osgood Hall, Massey Hall, and Old City Hall.  The fire proved to be a major boom for the brick works and they expanded quickly over the next few years.  By 1907 production was up to 100,000 bricks per day.  The picture below from the Toronto Archives shows Front Street after the fire.

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In 1909 the business was sold by the Taylor brothers to their brother-in-law Robert Davies. Davies invested a lot of money into the brick works and erected four of the buildings that remain today.  in 1910 he built the sales office pictured below.

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That same year another production facility was added beside the 1891 building where soft mud, stiff mud and dry bricks were produced.  It still houses the original shakers, dust collectors and sieves as pictured below.

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In 1912 a sand and lime storage facility was added.  The picture below is taken from the rear of the building.  This building features prominently in most old photos, including the aerial ones, of the 43 acre site due to the conveyor belt that always runs into a window on the back.  In the cover photo the conveyor on the right is carrying raw materials from the quarry into this building.  The picture of the complex in the cover photo includes the Half Mile Bridge which is described in a separate post.  We can date the photo to the early 20’s by the buildings and the steel construction of the half mile bridge.

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Large quantities of water are essential for the production of bricks.  The Taylor brothers diverted nearby Mud Creek to flow through their brick factory site.  In the picture below  there is a water channel that runs down the centre of the picture.  A rock wall lines the left side of the channel. The 1926 water treatment plant is the single story building that actually straddles the waterway. The front view of the 1912 sand and lime storage shed is on the right with the flower art sticking out of one third story window.

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During the second world war there were many German soldiers taken captive.  It was feared that if Germany invaded England these prisoners would be freed to fight again on the side of Germany.  A shortage of food and people to guard the prisoners led to the decision to inter some of them in prison camps in Canada.  One of these camps was at Todmorden and the inmates were forced to work at the Don Valley Brick works.  If you own a brick home built in the early 1940’s chances are that German POW’s made the bricks.

The business was sold again in 1956, this time to United Ceramics of Germany who went on an expansion program.  Seven new buildings were added between 1956 and 1961.  These included another dry press brick production building and in 1956 a building with 3 rows of kilns.  These kilns were fired at 1800 Fahrenheit and it would take a cart of bricks 2 days to pass through the 5 stages of the oven.

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An old brick press machine still sits in the welcome centre.

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The view from near the front of the pit looking north to the back.  In the early 1900’s the north face became an international geological site when it was discovered that there were fossils indicative of warmer climates.  From this they deduced that there was more than one ice age.  To get perspective on the size of the pit take notice of the person walking on the trail below.

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I climbed the hill on the north face to get a clear view back across the quarry to the cluster of old buildings.  The Bloor Viaduct (1918), also known as the Price Edward Viaduct, can be seen just beyond the compound.

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When the clay and shale were exhausted the pit was shut down and some of the equipment was sold off. The site sat abandoned for close to 20 years while the weather and lack of repairs took it’s toll on the buildings.  Wild parties and graffiti artists left their marks in the various facilities as well.

Starting in the mid 1990’s the site has been under restoration.  The quarry was partly filled in using excavations from the towers downtown including the Scotia Bank tower.  Mud Creek has been used to form 3 ponds and native vegetation has been re-established.  The site is now managed by Evergreen which has transformed it into an environmental showcase.  The building below was constructed to qualify for LEED platinum status as a building with one of the smallest carbon footprints in the world.  It uses part of the old holding building where bricks were kept before they went to the kilns.

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There is much more to be seen at the brick works and more opportunities to explore.  The guided tour sounds interesting but was not operating when I was there.

A list of our top 15 stories can be found here.

Google Maps link: Don Valley Brick Works

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